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Old 09-26-2011, 01:40 PM   #1
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Characters vs story

Hi, as someone a bit new to writing novels, I'm curious to know what do you find more important, characters or story, when it comes to writing.

While I've always loved writing and did quite a few short stories, and a few incomplete attempts at novels, I've started my new novel about which I am a lot more serious on finishing, and with which I am a lot more comfortable. And one thing I realized as I am moving along, is that sometimes my characters just refuse to get along with a story. And that I pick characters over the story every time.

What I mean by that, is that we sometimes come to a point when we need something to happen, but our characters would never do that. e.g. Have a careless, messy, forgetful character somehow remember to bring that one card that he needed, and that he never bothered carrying before, and then chalk it up as 'sheer luck'. If I get to that point, I usually see two ways to go about it: minor (or major, depending on the situation) re-write of the character and make it so that he has reason to have that card after all, or just throw the story in a whole new direction, curse, rip apart the plan for the next 100 pages and create a whole new situation... And that's exactly what I end up doing.

I get attached to the characters far more than I do to the story, and often let the characters write the story. Instead of thinking "they need to break someone out, so character A steals the card and opens the door, character B stays outside as cover, on the way out, they get ambushed but saved by character C", I simply plan that "they need to break him out, character A and B will be involved, they should probably get ambushed at this point. Probably involve character C or D here" and let the majority of it unfold through the characters actions. I like the results a lot more, but I also find myself spending more time on re-planning the story afterwards.

I'm curious what do others chose in these situations, characters or the story itself, and how do you around these roadblocks.
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Old 09-26-2011, 04:46 PM   #2
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I think that Characters and Story are of equal importance. You can't have a readable story without good characters and likewise you don't have much if your characters don't have something happening to them that they can act and react with. If Hamlet wasn't conflicted on what to do there would be no story worth telling and likewise without the story itself Hamlet wouldn't be worth reading about. After all everyone has their problems so what makes his any more important than yours or mine? The answer of course is the story of what the problem is, how it came to be, and how it is resolved. All of them are interrelated to who Hamlet is as well.
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Old 09-26-2011, 04:54 PM   #3
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I think the problem you're facing is that you're an organic writer and you're trying to plot.

I don't plot anywhere except in my head. There are some things that I know should be in the story, and I know the general direction it's going in, but I don't plot.

Instead, I spend a lot of time working on my characters. I don't do this before I've written a thousand words or so, and then I'll stop and try to work out some basic things about the characters. I might do a lot of work on them or a little work depending on how well I think I understand them.

Basically I need to know what they want (the character's drive to attain this is the action of the story) and I need to know what they need (what they are lacking in their psychological makeup) - this can also impact upon the story.

Aside from that there are a lot of exercises I might do as I work on the characters, probably writing a bit and going back to the characters if I'm not sure where I'm going. Sometimes the characters take over (this sounds like the problem you're having). I'd say go with it, but ask yourself where the story is going to lead if you let the characters act the way they want to. Often, you'll find that the story will be better.

Ultimately, trust your subconscious. It knows what's happening.
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Old 09-26-2011, 05:32 PM   #4
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The story is what happens to the characters. Given a starting point and two different characters, you would have two different stories. In the movie world - maybe also in the literary world, I don't know - you will hear people talk about the character arc. This is roughly what happens to the character during the evolution of the story.

Get hold of a copy of "Write Away" by Elizabeth George. She provides a questionnaire about characters which she needs to fill in before she begins writing. You need to know so much about your character to be able to write effectively about how (s)he would react in a given situation. And yes, you're going to find from time to time that one or other of your characters wouldn't do what you want them to do, and you've got to find a way round that. It might even mean writing a different story from the one you thought you were going to write.
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Old 09-26-2011, 10:10 PM   #5
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It might even mean writing a different story from the one you thought you were going to write.
That's definitely happens to me quite often. I usually manage to stick with the major plot, but the story evolves so much at certain times that I find the characters I thought were going to be the main ones become secondary, and some characters who were there just to fill in take the spotlight as soon as I start writing the story... which I don't mind, as I find it an interesting experience.
When it comes to making a plot though, as soon as I try to micro-manage it, I just find myself re-doing it far too often. A lot of people always tell me that I need to have the whole story planned out first, but whenever I try that, seems like it slows me down more than it helps. And thanks for the suggestion. I will take a look at that book.

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... and likewise you don't have much if your characters don't have something happening to them that they can act and react with.
I agree with that. I always have the conflict and resolution in mind, and aim towards it. My trouble is if I try to plan out how they get to the conflict and then the resolution too much, I always end up with something that my characters won't naturally do, and I much rather change the story a bit (still keeping the main conflict and resolution idea I had as much as I can) instead of altering characters or going with the "Oh, what do you know... I have this key in my pocket after all. Lucky me!"

I really think that organic writing is for me. As hard as I try to get the plot set in stone, it just seems more of an obstacle than an aid.
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Old 09-26-2011, 10:18 PM   #6
Harper Kingsley
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Characters are why we fall in love with a story and care about what happens to them. If your character is unlikable, the reader doesn't really care if something terrible happens to them. BUT if your character is likable, but they just spend the whole book sitting around eating Cheetos, that kind of ruins things too.

Still, the characters really do effect the story. It's like, if you're presented with a cookie, but you don't like cookies, would you: A) eat it anyway to spare someone's feelings, B) politely say "No thank you," or C) politely say "No thank you," then spend the next hour thinking your friend hates you because you don't want to eat their filthy cookies.

So if your character is faced with a life or death situation, just how pragmatic is s/he? Is your character the kind that would pick up a gun and start shooting attackers? Or is your character the kind to just try and run first? And if your character did pick up the gun, would they be able to actually hit what they aimed at?

My suggestion: write a general outline--these people meet each other, they end up here, somehow this happens, this is how the story wraps up. Then just let your characters set the scene, bearing in mind where you're trying to end up.
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Old 09-27-2011, 07:36 AM   #7
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What I mean by that, is that we sometimes come to a point when we need something to happen, but our characters would never do that.
I don't think there's a right or a wrong way to address these kinds of problems. In the past, I've both transformed characters to fit the plot and restructured plots in response to a character's actions. The important thing is that you find your own style and trust it.

(And I know this part's hard, but try not to stress too much over it. It does get easier with practice. )
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Old 09-27-2011, 07:48 AM   #8
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My advice to writers:

1) Keep the number of seen changes to a minimum
2) Keep a limited number of characters in the foreground (something like two or three) its ok to have a few in the background
3) Describe the characters so that your reader gets to know them;
4) Mix genders (nothing turns me off like a stag novel or one with all women);
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Old 09-27-2011, 02:21 PM   #9
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I don't think there's a right or a wrong way to address these kinds of problems. In the past, I've both transformed characters to fit the plot and restructured plots in response to a character's actions. The important thing is that you find your own style and trust it.

(And I know this part's hard, but try not to stress too much over it. It does get easier with practice. )
I sure hope it does. My biggest problem in the past was getting stuck with the story and then procrastinating too much while finding a solution. But I think I have much less trouble now that I stopped trying to stick to the specific story too much, and not be afraid to go to a completely different direction to keep it both realistic and interesting, instead of just picking one of the two.
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Old 09-27-2011, 03:06 PM   #10
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What I mean by that, is that we sometimes come to a point when we need something to happen, but our characters would never do that. e.g. Have a careless, messy, forgetful character somehow remember to bring that one card that he needed, and that he never bothered carrying before, and then chalk it up as 'sheer luck'.
Things like that always feel "forced" to me. As a writer, it's your job to find a way to either change the character, or the moment, so it does work. Often, you can leave the character alone and find some other way to get the card to him so he has it at the right time... or, find a way for the character to achieve his goal at that moment without the card, "by hook or by crook," whatever.

Having your characters well fleshed-out when you start putting together your story helps to minimize moments like this. Since I always put together a detailed outline of my stories, any conflicts like this come up well before I start writing the story, and I can fix them ahead of time.

Writing is like sewing: You can't ignore what happens with one thread and expect to get a nice tapestry when you're done; and changing the pattern halfway through doesn't always work.
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Old 09-27-2011, 05:49 PM   #11
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Although I start out with a basic plot, I allow it to veer off in a different direction when that seems to work better. Don't try to stick with a rigid outline because you can't always get your characters to follow the script you've laid out for them. Sometimes it's best to bend to their will and let them have their lead.

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Old 09-27-2011, 07:56 PM   #12
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You can't have one without the other. Both are important. One question you should ask, before you start work on a project, is how the characters and the story fit together. In you example, would your character's arc be shaped by being lucky? If that bit of luck will cause them to change, then you could get away with it. ("If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't appreciate my life!") A bit cheesy, but it can work.

One suggestion: try writing short stories. I learned a great deal about writing (and still do every so often) by writing short stories. You don't have to worry about what to do with them. Just write to practice your craft.
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Old 09-28-2011, 09:15 AM   #13
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Although I start out with a basic plot, I allow it to veer off in a different direction when that seems to work better. Don't try to stick with a rigid outline because you can't always get your characters to follow the script you've laid out for them. Sometimes it's best to bend to their will and let them have their lead.
Once I have my outline set, I don't usually have the problem of characters "doing something else." The entire point of the detailed outline is knowing how it all works out before you actually start writing.

Not every type of story can be as malleable as to allow free-form writing and still get the desired outcome. Where would we be if a distraught Victor Frankenstein had simply moved to Australia and never heard from or about his creation again?
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Old 09-28-2011, 09:34 AM   #14
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I agree that if it would make more sense for Frankenstein to just be happy having a wife and find comfort in her, abandoning his research and living happily ever after would result in a somewhat pointless 10 page book, but I think you can veer off and still have the same story to a certain degree.

Like in my original example, if I try to plan it out too much and go with "they need to break someone out, so character A steals the card and opens the door, character B stays outside as cover, on the way out, they get ambushed by 4 people, but saved by character C who comes in from the side," it would make sense in my story, and could work...
But when I start writing it, I find that maybe character B would be more true to himself if he doesn't stay to cover, but instead gets distracted by his urge to look around, and maybe character C wouldn't want to get involved physically, so he merely distracts the ambushing party and lets character B come back from the side to deal with them.

The story's main plot stays the same, the main character gets saved, but now that I actually got to the scene and put myself in my characters shoes, I simply found a more interesting alternative that also lets the characters be more true to themselves. This is a minor change, sometimes I'd end up with major changes, like a group ending up on the opposite side of the battle. But if their main object was to help a third party, the story itself still works, regardless on whose side of the battle they are on. It's just the getting there part that changed.

Last edited by ekster; 09-28-2011 at 09:40 AM.
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Old 09-28-2011, 01:06 PM   #15
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I agree that if it would make more sense for Frankenstein to just be happy having a wife and find comfort in her, abandoning his research and living happily ever after would result in a somewhat pointless 10 page book, but I think you can veer off and still have the same story to a certain degree.
Depends on where you veer, and whether it matters to your story that your characters took a left turn before they finished it. I guess I can't speak to that, because my characters sometimes manipulate the rhythm of a dialogue, but they never veer. They, and the story, do just what I expect them to, because that's the way I work.

In fact, if I were outlining a story, and I realized in the outline that the characters were not working in that direction... I'd go back and manipulate the characters, the action, or both, to get them to do what I wanted and follow the desired story. Once it worked in the outline, I can start writing and know what was going to happen.

I can't write a story without knowing in advance how the story and characters are all going to end; that's just not me.
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